Before the start of World War II, Warsaw was a major center of Jewish culture in Poland. The pre-war Jewish population was around 350,000, constituting around 30 percent of the city’s total population. When World War II began in September 1939, the city was heavy damaged by German forces. Following the German occupation of the city, Nazi officials ordered the establishment of a Jewish council, led by Adam Czerniaków. Jewish schools and businesses were closed, and Warsaw’s Jews were ordered to wear armbands with the Star of David to identify themselves from other Polish citizens. In October 1940, the Germans decreed the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto. All Jewish citizens in the city were ordered to move into this designated area, which only consisted of 1.3 square miles.
In July 1942, the Nazis began to carry out mass deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka concentration camp. Over a six-week period around 265,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka. In January 1943, the Nazis returned to deport the remaining Jewish residents to forced labor camps. During this period, the Jews began to put up a greater resistance against the Germans, using weapons smuggled into the Ghetto from Polish resistance fighters. While the Nazis were able to deport around 5,000 Jews, the increased resistance forced them to halt the operation and withdraw.
On the eve of Passover in April 1943, the Nazis returned yet again to implement the deportation of the remaining residents. Like the January attempt, the Jewish residents put up a stiff resistance. German forces were ambushed when they entered the Ghetto, with Jewish resistance fighters using small arms, Molotov cocktails, and explosives to halt the advance. The Warsaw Ghetto soon became a battleground. What was initially supposed to be a three-day operation, turned into a month long battle.
While the uprising failed to halt the deportation of the Ghetto’s Jewish population, it would inspire other rebellions against German forces. In the Bialystok and Minsk Ghettos, Jewish resistance fighters fought against Nazi occupation forces. In August 1944, the Polish Home Army would launch an uprising against the Nazis in Warsaw. It would fail to defeat the Nazi occupiers, but by January 1945 the Soviet offensive on the Eastern Front would force the Germans to abandon the city.
Look for more information regarding the 1944 Warsaw Uprising in the upcoming World at War issue #51 with the article “Warsaw Uprising” and join the conversation on Facebook!